Challenge On Stage: Afterthoughts

In Notes From the Set by Rod SantianoLeave a Comment

Well, it’s been a couple weeks since the principle photography of Jonah and the Great Fish wrapped.  In my last post, I was watching the rehearsals and wondering what all the challenges would end up being.  It was an interesting shoot—that’s for sure.  I thought that the shooting schedule and limitations of previous Liken episodes were less-than-ideal.  This production needs a new category all together.  All things considered (which I will get into detail here), I think the shoot went just about as well as it could have given the circumstances.

An interjection, just to clarify my position on this:  This entry may seem like a griping session on how I didn’t get what I wanted for a perfect shoot.  On the contrary, I was fully aware of the challenge and it’s inherent limitations and I accepted the challenge to do the best I could with what we had (or didn’t have).  The following observations are for educational purposes only ;)

Now, onto the circumstances.  On previous shoots, we had the limitations of time, space and money.  Each one of those were challenged on this shoot and we also had a new challenge of a tinier-than-ever crew.  But I’ll get to that in a little bit.

Let’s start with the TIME element.  Even though from the first episode to the eight episode, our schedule expanded from four musical-portion shooting days to seven, it still only gave us maybe four hours to shoot a musical number.  Our sets got bigger and everything got more elaborate.  So, in effect, we didn’t really end up having more time than first episode. We just had more things to shoot.  Most movie musicals will shoot a single musical number over a three to five day period… yes, for ONE song.  But we got used to four hours.  It’s just the way it had to be done.  Well, for Jonah, even though we still had seven shoot days for the musical portions, we only had a six to seven hour window to shoot per day because of the live show that was taking place every night.  So, what used to be four hours per song now became about an hour and a half.

The one thing that did help us in this incarnation of Liken was that because it was a stage production which was concurrently running, the actors were well-rehearsed and knew exactly what they were supposed to do.  Maybe a little bit (or a lot of) tweaking for the camera, but for the most part, that department was well in place.  Much of the time shooting previous episodes went to figuring out what the staging was and then constant adjustments to make it work for camera.
Side effects of the time restraint:

  • Insufficient amount of coverage shots needed to effectively and aesthetically tell the story well
  • Little time to augment the stage lighting that existed
  • No time for lighting adjustments between shots
  • Little to no time for camera rehearsals (wing it!)

Let’s talk about the SPACE limitations.  I knew going into this project that the limited space on stage would be a serious issue.  It was.  Not only was there no room for the cameras on stage, but there was also no room behind our subjects for any kind of depth.  The cameras ended up sitting on tripods wedged between seats in the third and fourth rows of the auditorium.  This, obviously, eliminated any possibility of dolly shots or even a quick camera placement adjustment because of the way the tripods needed to be situated for a stable shot.  There were occasions where we were able to put the camera on stage with the actors and the set, but the majority of the shooting occurred from the seating.  We had a CamMate jib, operated by Glenn Fisk, for four days of the seven that did allow us more flexibility.  What a lifesaver that was.

As I just mentioned, there was no space behind the actors and sets.  What made things worse is that half of the stage depth was occupied by the large Ninevah set that lived permanently on the stage.  A white screen came down in front of it to hid it during non-Ninevah scenes.  This screen effectively became our back wall which we had no other choice but to throw blue light from some rented LED fixtures to indicated either “sky” or “water,” depending on the scene.  There wasn’t even ample space to effectively place the thirty-some LED fixtures we rented so they went directly above and only two feet out from the screen.  Hotspots anyone?

Another issue with this configuration was that any kind of light that didn’t come from directly above casted a gnarly shadow on the screen.  The screen would’ve been fine if we had, oh, twenty or thirty feet between it and any set piece or actor, but no, we had between three or four feet to three or four inches.  So there were few options: 1) light from the sides of the stage so as to not cast (as much) shadows on the screen; 2) have a light as close to the main camera as possible to fill the actors and the shadows would then fall directly behind everything, minimizing apparently shadows; and/or 3) live with the shadows.  All options are seen in the film, with option #3 being the most apparent and offensive.
Lighting with these restrictions was a nightmare.  There was no space to hang or throw lights how and where I wanted because of the configuration of the stage, placement of set pieces and even the placement of the jib.  Neither was there any time to do what I would’ve liked to do, even if we had the space (or the money… or the crew…).

What’s next… ah, yes, MONEY.  This one will be a short.  Money solves everything.  We didn’t have any.
Onto the limited CREW.  Finding an experienced crew to fully staff a Liken shoot has never been an option because of budget.  As a result, much of the Liken crew came from film students, friends and fans willing to work for little to nothing at all—experience being the draw.  We always managed to find a decent-sized crew in the past, but this time… not so much.  I posted a solicitation on the local film group on the web and got only two responses which ultimately didn’t pan out.  Our producer, Ken Agle, was able to find a small handful of good help.  But it was far from sufficient.  The result was interesting, but it worked out.  Here is a typical camera, grip and lighting crew for past Liken episodes:

  • 1 Director of Photography (me)
  • 2 Camera Operators
  • 2 1st ACs
  • 2 2nd ACs
  • 1 Gaffer
  • 1 Key Grip/Dolly Grip
  • 4-6 Gaffer/Grip Helpers

Here was the camera, grip and lighting crew for Jonah:

  • 1 Director of Photography/Camera Operator/Camera Assistant/Grip (me)
  • 1 Gaffer/Camera Operator/Camera Assistant/Grip (Phil Shepherd)
  • 1 Lighting Board Operator (used occasionally)
  • 1 Part-time Helper (sometimes there or not, not necessarily the same person)
  • 1 Slate Person (who ever wasn’t doing anything)

As you can imagine, it was a bit challenging.  But we got it done.  These were the main challenges from my perspective.  There were many smaller challenges that didn’t neatly fit into the categories listed above, again, we got by.

I do have to give a special shout out to the LED fixtures and our lighting board operator, Trevor, on the “stormy sea” day of the shoot.  My gaffer, Phil, and I were trying different things to simulate lightning for this huge storm that is supposed to be taking place in the middle of the ocean.  We set up some lights on a flicker box and it looked… well… terrible, if you ask me.  But as we were still playing around with them, Trevor did something on the board that made all thirty-some LED fixtures turn instantly to white with the press of a button.  It looked great on camera and had the instant on-off effect that lighting creates.  It was an awesome effect for our little production and really enhanced the scene along with some fans and a fog machine.

So there you have it.  It was a good experience and it was great working with familiar faces.  The producer said that this may be the new model of doing future episodes.  Not sure how I feel about that.  Actually, I’m pretty sure I know exactly how I feel about that.

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